One-Minute Book Reviews

May 30, 2008

Randy Pausch’s ‘The Last Lecture’ – A Book for the Living, Not the Dying

Filed under: How to,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:24 am
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A professor with terminal pancreatic cancer writes about what life has taught him

The Last Lecture. By Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow. Hyperion, 224 pp., $21.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

For years, Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! has returned to the bestseller lists every June, spurred by its popularity as a graduation gift. As a statement of faith in someone who has just picked up a diploma, its buoyant message is hard to beat: “And will you succeed? / Yes! You will, indeed!”

But many graduates need more guidance than a picture book can offer. And for those who do, Randy Pausch has written what may be the year’s best high school or college graduation gift.

Pausch learned last year that he had terminal pancreatic cancer and, soon afterward, gave a valedictory lecture at Carnegie Mellon University, where he teaches computer science. He called his talk “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” and used it to explain how he had accomplished most of what he set out to do in life. Witty and poignant, the lecture had millions of viewings on YouTube and inspired this collection of brief essays in which Pausch tells what he has learned from life.

For all its popularity, The Last Lecture might give some people pause. It comes from Mitch Albom’s publisher and literary agent and has a format similar to that of Tuesdays With Morrie. And like Albom, Pausch loves clichés or what he calls “old chestnuts.” From The Last Lecture we learn that “Luck is indeed where preparation meets opportunity” and “Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.” Summing up the theme of his lecture and book, Pausch writes: “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”

But Pausch is much funnier than Albom. At times. The Last Lecture reads at times like a draft of Dave Barry Meets His Maker. Pausch allows that he’s given some good talks as a professor: “But being considered the best speaker in a computer science department is like being known as the tallest of the Seven Dwarfs.”

Pausch also serves up colorful anecdotes about working as an expert on virtual reality projects with Disney Imagineering and other titans. He tells us that reading journal articles can he so tedious that whenever he sent out a paper for review, he’d send a box of Girl Scout Thin Mints to the reviewer. “Thank you for agreeing to do this,” he’d write. “The enclosed Thin Mints are your reward. But no fair eating them until you review the paper.” When he needed to send a follow-up e-mail, he could keep it to one sentence: “Did you eat the Thin Mints yet?” You believe Pausch when he says that he achieved almost all of his childhood dreams that were within his reach and understand why he did.

That’s partly why The Last Lecture is a book for the living, not the dying. Pausch has been lucky to have been able to accomplish much of what he hoped to achieve, and he knows it. Many people aren’t. They die with large unfulfilled dreams that this book could throw into higher relief. So Pausch clearly found the ideal audience for his upbeat message at Carnegie Mellon. Students and other young people may find his book a wellspring of inspiration for the years ahead. Their grandparents may only regret that they don’t have more time to drink from it.

Best line: “Someone asked me what I want on my tombstone. I replied, ‘Randy Pausch: He Lived Thirty Years After a Terminal Diagnosis.’” And Pausch makes this comment about a football coach named Jim Graham: “Coach Graham worked in a no-coddling zone. Self-esteem? He knew there was really only one way to teach kids how to develop it: You give them something they can’t do, they work hard until they find they can do it, and you just keep repeating the process.”

Worst line: Pausch says he loves football clichés and often repeated them to his students: “I liked my students to win one for the Gipper, to go out an execute, to keep the drive alive, to march down the field, to avoid costly turnovers and to win games in the trenches even if they were gonna feel it on Monday.” Pausch is clearly having some fun here, but still: Isn’t it time to punt a few of those away?

Editor: Will Balliett

Published: April 2008

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Last Lecture was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 30, 2008. If you are reading this post on the home page of the site, scroll up to find the guide. If you are reading this post on the Internet, click on this link www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/30/.

Furthermore: Pausch posts regular updates on his health download.srv.cs.cmu.edu/~pausch/news/index.html. Read an excerpt from his book or watch his lecture at Carnegie Mellon here www.thelastlecture.com.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 6, 2008

How to Get Started as a Book Reviewer — Tips From the National Book Critics Circle

If you think that trying get book-review assignments is like trying to get work decorating staterooms on the Titanic, the NBCC suggests how to avoid the icebergs

Later today I’m going to announce a new series of negative achievement awards for hyperbole in book reviewing that will begin Friday on this site, so I’ve been looking around the Web for posts that tell how to avoid over-the-top praise in reviews (and, indirectly, how critics can keep their name off the list of winners). The Tips for Successful Book Reviewing page www.bookcritics.org/?go=tips on the National Book Critics Circle site wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, partly because it’s more about how to get started as a book reviewer than about how to write good reviews.

But it has great advice for anyone who’s wondering if you can still get review assignments now that so many books sections have shrunk or vanished, or if this effort wouldn’t be like trying to get work decorating the staterooms on the Titanic. Rebecca Skloot www.home.earthlink.net/~rskloot/of the NBCC compiled the page with help from Elaine Vitone and delivers on the subtitle of her article, “Strategies for Breaking in and Staying in: Getting started as a critic, building your reviewing portfolio, going national, and keeping editors happy.” Here’s her most important point:

“Read good criticism. There are several authors who regularly gather their reviews and essays into collections that show how good criticism must be to stand the test of time. The NBCC has awarded several of these books prizes in our criticism category: Cynthia Ozick’s Quarrel & Quandary, William H. Gass’ Finding a Form, John Updike’s Hugging the Shore, Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliche, William Logan’s The Undiscovered Country, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Making Waves are essentials in any critic’s library. Going back even further, the essays of T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Borges, and Orwell remind us how criticism can be the intellectual record of our times. Notice, too, how the very best criticism is driven by metaphors and ideas and examples, not adjectives.”

Skloot is right about those adjectives, and if you aren’t sure how many adjectives are too many, watch this blog for examples after the new awards series is announced.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. Janice Harayda is a former member of the NBCC board of directors.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 3, 2008

A Great Question to Ask Your Teenager (Quote of the Day / Michael Riera)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:28 pm
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I don’t review many childrearing guides, partly because most seem to recycle the same dozen or so tips. How many ways can you say, “Set limits” or “Be patient – this stage will pass”? And some of the books are so patronizing that you might wonder: Are their authors writing for children or for people who have them? But I love a comment that the writer and educator Michael Riera makes as part of a broader argument against lecturing children:

“In many ways, it all comes down to what Nobel Laureate Isadore Rabi’s mother used to ask him each day when he came home from school: ‘Did you ask any good questions today?'”

Riera is encouraging parents generally to ask questions instead of trying always to have definitive answers. But the question posed by Rabi’s mother is, in itself, great. Have you ever asked a child, “Did you ask any good questions in school today?” I wonder how this would work with teenagers who don’t aspire to become Nobel laureates.

Michael Riera in Staying Connected to Your Teenager: How to Keep Them Talking to You and How to Hear What They’re Really Saying (Perseus, 2003) www.perseusbooksgroup.com. Riera www.mikeriera.com is head of school at the Redwood Day School in Oakland, CA.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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